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Slamming is poetry as a spectator sport. Part rap, part performance art, and part stand-up, it's raucous, sometimes crude, and pulsating with the rhythm of the streets. Independent filmmaker Paul Devlin, who previously made a TV pilot called Slammin, documented the 1996 National Poetry Slam competition in Portland for this entertaining excursion into populist art. The 120 titan poets from 27 city teams who participated are construction workers, hospital attendants, teachers, and members of the genteel unemployed, but when they enter the performing arena they adopt outlaw rock star personas and monikers like Shut up Shelley and Mums the Schemer. "We're the bungee-jumping, adrenalin-addicted junkies of the literary world," explains one hopeful. New York is the team to beat with such slam royalty as the charismatic Saul Williams (co-writer and star of the exhilarating movie Slam), whose full-throated oratory and magnetic presence recall Orson Welles -- if Welles had been young, hip, and black.

But as the slam phenomenon has grown, politics and corporate sponsorship have entered the picture. It could be that slam will be a victim of its own success, with its rising popularity and competitions like this one defanging its social commentary. But if you're wondering where the new mavericks will come from now that independent film has been co-opted, check out the talented nonconformists in this movie. These people actually believe they can change the world with words. What a quaint idea.

-- Sura Wood

SlamNation screens Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 11 and 12, at 7 and 9:15 p.m. (also Wednesday at 2 and 4:30 p.m.) at the Roxie, 3117 16th St. (at Valencia), S.F. Admission is $6.50; call 863-1087.

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